Collateral Murder Part Two

This is the second in a pair of posts analysing this video, a version of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video released in 2010 by Wikileaks. The last time covered the first five minutes of content, analysing the strange tactics used by the US military in Iraq at the time, but that isn’t why the video was released. The reason this caused such a stir is thanks to the next ten minutes, as an Apache helicopter opens fire on a group of seemingly inoffensive people, including a pair of journalists.

Watching this portion of the video is more tragic than anything, because so much of it could be considered standard military procedure. As mentioned in my last post, with so few men on the ground trying to cover such a large area (the problem that, ultimately, caused all the issues the video explores) the US army had to rely on its superior air force to provide cover for the foot soldiers it did have. The helicopter’s pilot identifies the group as ‘six or seven men with AK-47s’, and despite the point that the video makes that the journalist’s camera was mistaken for a weapon, there were armed insurgents in the group (hence why said journalists were filming with them). As, presumably, the result of a breakdown in communications, the proximity of Ethan McCord’s little group of soldiers is not relayed to the chopper and they are given permission to open fire on the group.

If opening up a 30mm cannon on an unaware group of disorganised insurgents seems an excessive use of force it’s because it, frankly, is, and reflects how desperate the army had become just to kill every insurgent they could find (slightly losing sight of the point of a counter-insurgency operation and probably prolonging the war; but that isn’t the soldiers’ job to know). Not only that, but it is a reflection of the rules of engagement at the time, that McCord describes later, which allowed you to open fire on anyone who you ‘felt threatened’ by. Quite how a group of trained soldiers in the most heavily armed helicopter used by any army in the world  are feeling threatened by a group of unprotected, unaware men armed with assault rifles 3 miles away rather escapes me, and reflects the complete idiocy of that system. Because ‘feeling threatened’ is not a quantitative, provable description, it is not possible for any claim that these rules were being violated to be upheld; even if the victim is unarmed, they could still be shot if it is claimed the soldier thought they could have been wired to explosives. Though, to be honest, such claims would likely have scarcely ever been made even in the worst instances; the high-ups care too much about their previously stated goals to ‘kill every mother f***er’ available.

Regarding the deaths themselves however… this is war, and bad guys get killed: arguing over the niceties of that opens a whole new can of worms. The carnage McCord describes is part and parcel of modern warfare, horrible though it may be, and the role of an army in this situation is to ensure that the damage it inflicts is less than the damage that would be caused were the situation allowed to get out of hand. The very title of the video, ‘Collateral Murder’, offers a sense of bitter irony at the Pentagon euphemism of ‘collateral damage’ used whenever innocent people are killed in an operation, but in this situation this is not a result of the US Army actively deciding that these lives are expendable. This is not deciding to bomb a town despite knowing there are innocents present, but about opening fire on a group of suspected terrorists and misidentifying innocent journalists. It is an accident; a deadly one to be sure, but an honest accident nonetheless.

No, the really shocking thing about this section of the video is what comes afterwards: the way that the crew of the Apache seem so blasé about the fact that they’ve just gunned down eight people. I can well appreciate that these men are soldiers; killing people is, ultimately, their job, and they wouldn’t be good at it were they to burst into tears every time somebody dies. But the fact remains that they have just slaughtered eight people and seem positively elated at the prospect, as if killing in this way is their idea of fun. This could be argued to be the result of their elevated position; they don’t have to get down & dirty, to see what they have wrought. At the risk of sounding preachy, killing for enjoyment is among the single worst traits any human could have, and such people are patently unsuited for being left unrestricted on any front line.

Worse is to follow. The gunship then proceeds to open fire on a people carrier containing young children; hardly a technical or APC. Although the children could almost certainly not have been identified from the gunship’s position, the act of opening fire on clearly unarmed men in an unprotected, unarmed vehicle is so against every rule of warfare and rule of engagement that it is positively ridiculous. It doesn’t matter that by clearing up bodies and weapons they are ‘on the other side’: they are not acting as a threat and they are not to be engaged. That’s what these bloody rules are for. Hell, the chopper’s crew even know that there’s a group of infantry on their way in vehicles, and it surely wouldn’t have been too much to simply wait for them to deal with the whole mess properly. Here, the term ‘collateral murder’ seems a little more appropriate. Again, we see more evidence (especially when they continue shooting the ‘disabled’ van, and are able to laugh about it afterwards) that these men in the Apache are shooting because they find it fun. And, indeed, that there are far too many people giving orders who are quite happy to let them do so.

Most of the rest of the video deals with McCord & his platoon’s reaction to the horrific scene left by the Apache; the scale of death and destruction, his desperate efforts to help in any way he could, the death of a child in his arms, and crucially the (entirely justifiable) immense shock and emotional kickback he felt in response to the incident. Even for a soldier, this is ugly stuff, and McCord is clearly a man in need of sympathy and help. It has taken a long time for the world to realise the importance of mental health to soldiers, but after studying the domestic abuse figures for soldiers post-Vietnam, its importance becomes clear.

Except that sympathy is precisely the opposite of what he receives. Perhaps his platoon commander’s response of ‘you need to stop worrying about those f***ing kids and pull security’ is understandable; they are, after all, still unprotected in dangerous territory and they still have a job to do. On patrol, emotions have to be put to one side purely for everyone’s safety and wellbeing. One could also argue that his platoon members’ reaction of having ‘pretty much ignored what just happened’ is also justifiable, for these men are soldiers and are used to death and pain surrounding them; hell, McCord even says that the army told them, quite rightly, never to let their emotions take over whilst on a mission. That the whole debacle has affected Ethan McCord differently to them is just a product of the experience and his mind, so his decision to see a mental health counsellor, someone trained in this most strange of fields, is an eminently sensible one.

What makes absolutely no sense is the idea that, as McCord says, ‘needing to talk to someone could constitute a crime in the army’; even in the field of operations, just ‘sucking it up’ is most often not a sensible long-term strategy. Soldiers go on tours of duty for very long periods, up to a year on occasion, and that is a long time to try and ‘suck up’ a serious mental health issue. If a soldier’s mental stability is compromised that makes them a potential liability in the field, and it makes absolutely no sense that counselling, one of the best tools we currently have to combat these issues, is in any way restricted to soldiers. Sometimes, even the toughest need a hand, and to prevent them from getting it is just plain old stupid. One only needs to listen to the rest of McCord’s speech to see how profoundly this has affected him.

It’s not easy to summarise this video. It’s a story covering so many different aspects; of the need for manpower when combating an insurgency and the consequences thereof, of how confusion and lack of information can lead to catastrophic consequences, how different people suffer different things in different ways to different extents and of the importance of properly enforced, sensible rules of engagement. But the primary theme governing the actual mistakes made by the US military in this situation concern man management; of managing the deployment of soldiers incorrectly for the situation (albeit whilst somewhat caught between a rock and a hard place), of giving the wrong people access to unrestricted, no strings attached lethal force, and of failing to take care of people when they need it. Those mistakes cost the lives of several innocent people, two of them children, cost the US army a soldier, and cost Ethan McCord his mind and his happiness. The lessons they offer should be heeded.

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Collateral Murder

This post, I’m going to be performing an analysis of a video that popped up on my Facebook feed earlier this week; but, before I link it, it’s worth giving you fair warning that the content is pretty graphic, and the content is not to be taken lightly. The video in question is nothing especially new (the content was released by Wikileaks in a video entitled ‘Collateral Murder’ back in 2010), and deals with a snapshot of the Iraq war; namely, the killing of a group of apparently mostly innocent civilians by the crew of a US army Apache helicopter gunship.

This particular video tells the story of this events through the words of Ethan McCord, a soldier in the army who was on the ground at the time of the incident. But he begins with some mention of the tactics employed by the army during his time in Iraq, so my analysis will begin there. McCord talks of how, whenever an IED went off, soldiers in his battalion were ordered to ‘kill every mother****er on the street’, issuing 360 degree rotational fire to slaughter every person, civilians and insurgents alike, unfortunate enough to be in the area at the time and how, even though this often went against the morals of the soldiers concerned, a failure to comply with that order would result in the NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers, aka high-ranking soldiers) in your platoon ‘make[ing] your life hell’. The death toll and slaughter this practice must have caused could hardly be imagined, but McCord does his best to describe it; he talks of ‘the destruction of the Iraqi people’, of normal, innocent people being massacred just for being in the wrong place in the wrong time. McCord also talks about ‘Ranger Dominance’ operations, in which a couple of companies walked unprotected through New Baghdad (a district of the larger city of Baghdad) to perform counter-insurgency tasks. An example he gives are ‘Knock-in searches’ (I think that’s the phrase he uses), in which soldiers knock on doors/break in in order to search for potentially insurgency-related material.

The reason for these missions, for this behaviour, and for the seemingly nonsensical, murderous missions these soldiers were asked to perform comes, basically, down to the type of war being fought. Once Saddam Hussein had been removed from power, many in the US government and army thought the war would be over before very long; just cleaning up a few pockets of resistance. However, what they didn’t count on was that a mixture of their continued presence in the country, their bad behaviour and the sheer dedication of certain diehard Hussein loyalists, and before very long coalition forces found themselves combating an insurgency operation. Insurgencies aren’t like ‘traditional’ warfare; there are no fronts, no battle lines, no easily identifiable cases of ‘good guys here, bad guys over there’. Those kinds of wars are easy to fight, and there’s no way that the military juggernaut of the US army is ever going to run into trouble fighting one in the foreseeable future.

Insurgencies are a different kettle of fish altogether, for two key (and closely related) reasons. The first is that the battle is not fought over land or resources, but over hearts and minds- an insurgency is won when the people think you are the good guys and the other lot are the bad guys, simply because there is no way to ‘restore stability’ to a country whilst a few million people are busy throwing things at your soldiers. The second is that insurgents are not to be found in a clearly defined and controlled area, but hiding all over the place; in safe houses, bunkers, cellars, sewers and even in otherwise innocuous houses and flats. This means that to crush an insurgency does not depend on how many soldiers you have versus the bad guys, but how many soldiers you have per head of population; the more civilians there are, the more places there are the hide, and the more people you need to smoke them out.

Conventional wisdom apparently has it that you need roughly one soldier per ten civilians in order to successfully crush an insurgency operation within a reasonable time frame, or at all if the other side are properly organised, and if that sounds like a ridiculous ratio then now you know why it took so long for the US to pull out of Iraq. I have heard it said that in the key areas of Iraq, coalition forces peaked at one soldier per hundred civilians, which simply is not enough to cover all the required areas fully. This left them with two options; ether concentrate only on highly select areas, and let the insurgents run riot everywhere else (and most likely sneak in behind their backs when they try to move on somewhere else) or to spread themselves thin and try to cover as much ground as possible with minimal numbers and control. In the video, we see consequences of the second approach being used, with US forces attempting to rely on their air support to provide some semblance of intelligence and control over an area whilst soldiers are spread thin and vulnerable, often totally unprotected from mortar attack, snipers and IEDs. This basically means that soldiers cannot rely on extensive support, or backup, or good intel, or to perform missions in a safe, secure environment, and their only way of identifying militant activity is, basically, to walk right into it, either intentionally (hence the Knock-in Searches) or simply by accident. In the former case, it is generally simple enough to apprehend those responsible, but successfully discovering an insurgent via a deliberate search is highly unlikely. It is for this reason that the army don’t take no for an answer in these types of searches, and will often turn a house upside down in an effort to maximise their chance of finding something. In the latter case, identifying and apprehending an individual troublemaker is no easy task, so the army clearly decided (in their infinite wisdom) that the only way to have a chance of  getting the insurgent is to just annihilate everyone and everything in the immediate vicinity.

That’s the reasoning used by the US forces in this situation, and it’s fair to say that in this regard they were rather stuck between a rock and a hard place. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that these tactics are, in the context of an insurgency operation, completely stupid and bull-headed. Remember, an insurgency operation aims, as military officials constantly tell us, to win hearts and minds, to get the civilian population on your side; that’s half the reason you’re not permitting your soldiers to show ‘cowardice’. But, at the same time and in direct contrast to the ‘hearts and minds principle’, this particular battalion commander has chosen to get his soldiers battering down doors and shooting civilians at the first sign of trouble. Unfortunately, this is what happens when wars are badly managed and there are not enough men on the ground to do the job; stupid things becomes sanctioned as ideas because they seem like the only way forward. The results are shown quiter plainly in McCord’s testimony: soldiers of the 1st infantry ‘the toast of the army’, men who ‘pride themselves on being tougher than anyone else’, are getting genuinely scared of going out on missions, fear welling up in their eyes as they wander unprotected through dangerous streets praying they don’t come across any IEDs or snipers.

And that’s just the tactics; next time, I will get on to the meat of the video. The incident that Wikileaks put on show for the world to see…

Air Warfare Today

My last post summarised the ins and outs of the missile weaponry used by most modern air forces today, and the impact that this had on fighter technology with the development of the interceptor and fighter-bomber as separate classes. This technology was flashy and rose to prominence during the Korean war, but the powers-that-be still used large bomber aircraft during that conflict and were convinced that carpet bombing was the most effective strategy for a large-scale land campaign. And who knows; if WWIII ever ends up happening, maybe that sheer scale of destruction will once again be called for.

However, this tactic was not universally appreciated. As world warfare descended ever more into world politics and scheming, several countries began to adopt the fighter-bomber as their principle strike aircraft. A good example is Israel, long-time allies of the US, who used American fighter-bombers early on during the 1970s Middle East conflict to take out the air bases of their Soviet-backed Arab neighbours, giving them air superiority in the region that proved very valuable in the years to come as that conflict escalated. These fighters were valuable to such countries, who could not afford the cost of a large-scale bombing campaign; faster, precision guided destruction made far better fiscal sense and annoyed the neighbours less when they were parked on their doorstep (unless your government happened to be quite as gung-ho as Israel’s). Throughout the 1960s, this realisation of the value of fighter aircraft lead to further developments in their design; ground-assault weapons, in the form of air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs, began to be standard equipment on board fighter aircraft once their value as principle strike weapons was realised and demand for them to perform as such increased.  Furthermore, as wars were fought and planes were brought down, it was also realised that dogfighting was not in fact a dead art when one’s opponents (ie the Soviet Union and her friends) also had good hardware, so maneouvreability was once again reinstated as a design priority. Both of these advances were greatly aided by the rapid advancements in the electronics of the age, which quickly found their way into avionics; the electronic systems used by aircraft for navigation, monitoring, and (nowadays) help flying the aircraft, among other things.

It was also at this time that aircraft began experimenting with the idea of VTOL: Vertical Take Off and Landing. This was an advantageous property for an aircraft to have since it limited the space it needed for its take off and landing, allowing it to land in a wider range of environments where there wasn’t a convenient long stretch of bare tarmac. It was also particularly useful for aircraft carriers, which had been shown during WW2’s battle of Midway to be incredibly useful military tools, since any space not used for runway could be used to carry more precious aircraft. Many approaches were tried, including some ‘tail-sitting’ aircraft that mounted onto a vertical wall, but the only one to achieve mainstream success was the British Harrier, with two rotatable engine vents that could be aimed downwards for vertical takeoff. These offered the Harrier another trick- it was the only aircraft with a reverse gear. A skilled pilot could, if being tailed by a hostile, face his vents forward so his engines were pushing him in the opposite direction to his direction of travel, causing him to rapidly slow down and for his opponent to suddenly find himself with an enemy behind him eyeing up a shot. This isn’t especially relevant, I just think it’s really cool.

However, the event that was to fundamentally change late 20th century air warfare like no other was the Vietnam war; possibly the USA’s biggest ever military mistake. The war itself was chaotic on almost every level, with soldiers being accused of everything from torture to drug abuse, and by the mid 1960s it had already been going on, on and off, for over a decade years. The American public was rapidly becoming disillusioned with the war in general, as the hippy movement began to lift off, but in August 1964 the USS Maddox allegedly fired at a couple of torpedo boats that were following it through the Gulf of Tonkin. I say allegedly, because there is much speculation as to the identity of the vessels themselves; as then-president Lyndon B. Johnson said, “those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish”. In any case, the outcome was the important bit; when (now known to be false) reports came in two days later of a second attack in the area, Congress backed Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which basically gave the President the power to do what he liked in South-East Asia without making the war official (which would have meant consulting the UN). This resulted in a heavy escalation of the war both on the ground and in the air, but possibly the most significant side-effect was ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, which authorised a massive-scale bombing campaign to be launched on the Communist North Vietnam. The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, Curtis LeMay, had been calling for such a saturation bombing campaign for a while by then, and said “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”.

Operation Rolling Thunder ended up dropping, mainly via B-52 bombers, a million tonnes of bombs across North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail (used to supply the militant NLF, aka Viet Cong, operating in South Vietnam) across neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, in possibly the worst piece of foreign politics ever attempted by a US government- and that’s saying something. Not only did opinion of the war, both at home and abroad, take a large turn for the worse, but the bombing campaign itself was a failure; the Communist support for the NLF did not come from any physical infrastructure, but from an underground system that could not be targeted by a carpet bombing campaign. As such, NLF support along the Ho Chi Minh continued throughout Rolling Thunder, and after three years the whole business was called off as a very expensive failure. The shortcomings of the purpose-built bomber as a concept had been highlighted in painful detail for all the world to see; but two other aircraft used in Vietnam showed the way forward. The F-111 had variable geometry wings, meaning they could change their shape depending on the speed the aircraft was going. This meant it performed well at a wide variety of airspeeds, both super- and sub-sonic (see my post regarding supersonic flight for the ins and outs of this), and whilst the F-111 never had the performance to utilise them properly (since it was turboprop, rather than purely jet powered) the McDonnell F-4 Phantom did; the Phantom claimed more kills than any other fighter aircraft during Vietnam, and was (almost entirely accidentally) the first multi-role aircraft, operating both as the all-weather interceptor it was designed to be and the strike bomber its long range and large payload capacity allowed it to be.

The key advantage of multi-role aircraft is financial; in an age where the massive wars of the 20th century are slowly fading into the past (ha, ha) and defence budgets are growing ever-slimmer, it makes much more sense to own two or three aircraft that can each do five things very well than 15 that can only do one each to a superlative degree of perfection. This also makes an air force more flexible and able to respond faster; if an aircraft is ready for anything, then it alone is sufficient to cover a whole host of potential situations. Modern day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon take this a stage further; rather than being able to be set up differently to perform multiple different roles, they try to have a single setup that can perform any role (or, at least, that any ‘specialised’ setup also allows for other scenarios and necessities should the need arise). Whilst the degree of unspecialisation of the hardware does leave multirole aircraft vulnerable to more specialised variations if the concept is taken too far, the advantages of multirole capabilities in a modern air force existing with the modern political landscape are both obvious and pressing. Pursuit and refinement of this capability has been the key challenge facing aircraft designers over the last 20 to 30 years, but there have been two new technologies that have made their way into the field. The first of these is built-in aerodynamic instability (or ‘relaxed stability’), which has been made possible by the invention of ‘fly-by-wire’ controls, by which the joystick controls electronic systems that then tell the various components to move, rather than being mechanically connected to them. Relaxed stability basically means that, left to its own devices, an aircraft will oscillate from side to side or even crash by uncontrollable sideslipping rather than maintain level flight, but makes the aircraft more responsive and maneouvrable. To ensure that the aircraft concerned do not crash all the time, computer systems generally monitor the pitch and yaw of the aircraft and make the tiny corrections necessary to keep the aircraft flying straight. It is an oft-quoted fact that if the 70 computer systems on a Eurofighter Typhoon that do this were to crash, the aircraft would quite literally fall out of the sky.

The other innovation to hit the airframe market in recent years has been the concept of stealth, taking one of two forms. Firstly we consider the general design of modern fighters, carefully designed to minimise their radar cross-section and make them less visible to enemy radar. They also tend to shroud their engine exhausts so they aren’t visually visible from a distance. Then, we consider specialist designs such as the famous American Lockheed Nighthawk, whose strange triangular design covered in angled, black sheets of material are designed to scatter and absorb radar and make them ‘invisible’, especially at night. This design was, incidentally, one of the first to be unflyably unstable when in flight, and required a fly-by-wire control system that was revolutionary for that time.

Perhaps the best example of how far air warfare has come over the last century is to be found in the first Gulf War, during 1991. At night, Nighthawk stealth bombers would cross into Hussein-held territory to drop their bombs, invisible to Hussein’s radar and anti-aircraft systems, but unlike wars of old they didn’t just drop and hope at their targets. Instead, they were able to target bunkers and other such fortified military installations with just one bomb; a bomb that they could aim at and drop straight down a ventilation shaft. Whilst flying at 600 miles an hour.

The Development of Air Power

By the end of the Second World War, the air was the key battleground of modern warfare; with control of the air, one could move small detachments of troops to deep behind enemy lines, gather valuable reconnaissance and, of course, bomb one’s enemies into submission/total annihilation. But the air was also the newest theatre of war, meaning that there was enormous potential for improvement in this field. With the destructive capabilities of air power, it quickly became obvious that whoever was able to best enhance their flight strength would have the upper hand in the wars of the latter half of the twentieth century, and as the Cold War began hotting up (no pun intended) engineers across the world began turning their hands to problems of air warfare.

Take, for example, the question of speed; fighter pilots had long known that the faster plane in a dogfight had a significant advantage over his opponent, since he was able to manoeuvre quickly, chase his opponents if they ran for home and escape combat more easily. It also helped him cover more ground when chasing after slower, more sluggish bombers. However, the technology of the time favoured internal combustion engines powering propeller-driven aircraft, which limited both the range and speed of aircraft at the time. Weirdly, however, the solution to this particular problem had been invented 15 years earlier, after a young RAF pilot called Frank Whittle patented his design for a jet engine. However, when he submitted this idea to the RAF they referred him to engineer A. A. Griffith, whose study of turbines and compressors had lead to Whittle’s design. The reason Griffith hadn’t invented the jet engine himself was thanks to his fixed belief that jet engines would be too inefficient to act as practical engines on their own, and thought they would be better suited to powering propellers. He turned down Whittle’s engine design, which used the forward thrust of the engine itself, rather than a propeller, for power, as impractical, and so the Air Ministry didn’t fund research into the concept. Some now think that, had the jet engine been taken seriously by the British, the Second World War might have been over by 1940, but as it was Whittle spent the next ten years trying to finance his research and development privately, whilst fitting it around his RAF commitments. It wasn’t until 1945, by which time the desperation of war had lead to governments latching to every idea there was, that the first jet-powered aircraft got off the ground; and it was made by a team of Germans, Whittle’s patent having been allowed to expire a decade earlier.

Still, the German jet fighter was not exactly a practical beast (its engine needed to be disassembled after every use), and by then the war was almost lost anyway. Once the Allies got really into their jet aircraft development after the war, they looked set to start reaching the kind of fantastic speeds that would surely herald the new age of air power. But there was a problem; the sound barrier. During the war, a number of planes had tried to break the magical speed limit of 768 mph, aka the speed of sound (or Mach 1, as it is known today), but none had succeeded; partly this was due to the sheer engine power required (propellers get very inefficient when one approaching the speed of sound, and propeller tips can actually exceed the speed of sound as they spin), but the main reason for failure lay in the plane breaking up. In particular, there was a recurring problems of the wings tearing themselves off as they approached the required speed. It was subsequently realised that as one approached the sound barrier, you began to catch up with the wave of sound travelling in front of you; when you got too close to this, the air being pushed in front of the aircraft began to interact with this sound wave, causing shockwaves and extreme turbulence. This shockwave is what generates the sound of a sonic boom, and also the sound of a cracking whip. Some propeller driver WW2 fighters were able to achieve ‘transonic’ (very-close-to-Mach-1) speeds in dives, but these shockwaves generally rendered the plane uncontrollable and they invariably crashed; this effect was known as ‘transonic buffeting’. A few pilots during the war claimed to have successfully broken the sound barrier in dives and lived to tell the tale, but these claims are highly disputed. During the late 40s and early 50s, a careful analysis of transonic buffeting and similar effects yielded valuable information about the aerodynamics of attempting to break the sound barrier, and yielded several pieces of valuable data. One of the most significant, and most oft-quoted, developments concerned the shape of the wings; whilst  it was discovered that the frontal shape and thickness of the wings could be seriously prohibitive to supersonic flight, it was also realised that when in supersonic flight the shockwave generated was cone shaped. Not only that, but behind the shockwave air flowed at subsonic speeds and a wing behaved as normal; the solution, therefore, was to ‘sweep back’ the shape of the wings to form a triangle shape, so that they always lay ‘inside’ the cone-shaped shockwave. If they didn’t, the wing travelling through supersonic air would be constantly being battered by shockwaves, which would massively increase drag and potentially take the wings off the plane. In reality, it’s quite impractical to have the entire wing lying in the subsonic region (not least because a very swept-back wing tends to behave badly and not generate much lift when in subsonic flight), but the sweep of a wing is still a crucial factor in designing an aircraft depending on what speeds you want it to travel at. In the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, the fastest manned aircraft ever made (it could hit Mach 3.3), the problem was partially solved by having wings located right at the back of the aircraft to avoid the shockwave cone. Most modern jet fighters can hit Mach 2.

At first, aircraft designed to break the sound barrier were rocket powered; the USA’s resident speed merchant Chuck Yeager was the first man to officially and veritably top 768mph in the record-breaking rocket plane Bell X-1, although Yeager’s co-tester is thought to have beaten him to the achievement by 30 minutes piloting an XP-86 Sabre. But, before long, supersonic technology was beginning to make itself felt in the more conventional spheres of warfare; second generation jet fighters were, with the help of high-powered jet engines, the first to engage in supersonic combat during the 50s, and as both aircraft and weapons technology advanced the traditional roles of fighter and bomber started to come into question. And the result of that little upheaval will be explored next time…

War in Three Dimensions

Warfare has changed a lot in the last century. Horses have become redundant, guns become reliable, machine guns become light enough to carry and bombs have become powerful enough to totally annihilate a small country if the guy with the button so chooses. But perhaps more significant than just the way hardware has changed is the way that warfare has changed itself; tactics and military structure have changed beyond all recognition compared to the pre-war era, and we must now fight wars whilst surrounded by a political landscape, at least in the west, that does not approve of open conflict. However, next year marks the 100th anniversary of a military innovation that not only represented massive hardware upgrade at the time, but that has changed almost beyond recognition in the century since then and has fundamentally changed the way we fight wars; the use of aeroplanes in warfare.

The skies have always been a platform to be exploited by the cunning military strategist; balloons were frequently used for messaging long before they were able to carry humans and be used for reconnaissance during the early 20th century, and for many years the only way of reliably sending a complicated message over any significant distance was via homing pigeon. It was, therefore, only natural that the Wright brothers had barely touched down after their first flight in ‘Flyer I’ when the first suggestions of a military application to such a technology were being made. However, early attempts at powered flight could not sustain it for very long, and even subsequent improvements failed to produce anything capable of carrying a machine gun. By the First World War, aircraft had become advanced enough to make controlled, sustained, two-person flight at an appreciable height a reality, and both the Army and Navy were quick to incorporate air divisions into their structures (these divisions in the British Armed Forces were the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service respectively). However, these air forces were initially only used for reconnaissance purposes and ‘spotting’ for artillery to help them get their eye in; the atmosphere was quite peaceful so far above the battlefield, and pilots and observers of opposing aircraft would frequently wave to one another during the early years of the war. As time passed and the conflict grew ever-bloodier, these exchanges became less friendly; before long observers would carry supplies of bricks into the air with them and attempt to throw them at enemy aircraft, and the Germans even went so far as to develop steel darts that could reportedly split a man in two; whilst almost impossible to aim in a dogfight, these darts were incredibly dangerous for those on the ground. By 1916 aircraft had grown advanced enough to carry bombs, enabling a (slightly) more precise method of destroying enemy targets than artillery, and before long both sides could equip these bombers with turret-mounted machine guns that the observers could fire on other aircraft with; given that the aircraft of the day were basically wire and wood cages covered in fabric, these guns could cause vast amounts of damage and the men within the planes had practically zero protection (and no parachutes either, since the British top brass believed this might encourage cowardice). To further protect their bombers, both sides began to develop fighter aircraft as well; smaller, usually single-man, planes with fixed machine guns operated by the pilot (and which used a clever bit of circuitry to fire through the propeller; earlier attempts at doing this without blowing the propeller to pieces had simply consisted of putting armour plating on the back of the propeller, which not infrequently caused bullets to bounce back and hit the pilot). It wasn’t long before these fighters were given more varied orders, ranging from trench strafing to offensive patrols (where they would actively go and look for other aircraft to attack). Perhaps the most dangerous of these objectives was balloon strafing; observation balloons were valuable pieces of reconnaissance equipment, and bringing them down generally required a pilot to navigate the large escort of fighters that accompanied them. Towards the end of the war, the forces began to realise just how central to their tactics air warfare had become, and in 1918 the RFC and RNAS were combined to form the Royal Air Force, the first independent air force in the world. The RAF celebrated its inception three weeks later when German air ace Manfred von Richthofen (aka The Red Baron), who had 80 confirmed victories despite frequently flying against superior numbers or hardware, was shot down (although von Richthofen was flying close to the ground at the time in pursuit of an aircraft, and an analysis of the shot that killed him suggests that he was killed by a ground-based AA gunner rather than the Canadian fighter pilot credited with downing him. Exactly who fired the fatal shot remains a mystery.)

By the time the Second World War rolled around things had changed somewhat; in place of wire-and-fabric biplanes, sleeker metal monoplanes were in use, with more powerful and efficient engines making air combat faster affair. Air raids themselves could be conducted over far greater distances since more fuel could be carried, and this proved well suited to the style of warfare that the war generated; rather than the largely unmoving battle lines of the First World War, the early years of WW2 consisted of countrywide occupation in Europe, whilst the battlegrounds of North Africa and Soviet Russia were dominated by tank warfare and moved far too fluidly for frontline air bases to be safe. Indeed, air power featured prominently in neither of these land campaigns; but on the continent, air warfare reigned supreme. As the German forces dominated mainland Europe, they launched wave after wave of long distance bombing campaigns at Britain in an effort to gain air superiority and cripple the Allies’ ability to fight back when they attempted to cross the channel and invade. However, the British had, unbeknownst to the Germans, perfected their radar technology, and were thus able to use their relatively meagre force of fighters to greatest effect to combat the German bombing assault. This, combined with some very good planes and flying on behalf of the British and an inability to choose the right targets to bomb on behalf of the Germans, allowed the Battle of Britain to swing in favour of the Allies and turned the tide of the war in Europe. In the later years of the war, the Allies turned the tables on a German military crippled by the Russian campaign after the loss at Stalingrad and began their own orchestrated bombing campaign. With the increase in anti-aircraft technology since the First World War, bombers were forced to fly higher than ever before, making it far harder to hit their targets; thus, both sides developed the tactic of ‘carpet bombing’, whereby they would simply load up as big a plane as they could with as many bombs as it could carry and drop them all over an area in the hope of at least one of the bombs hitting the intended target. This imprecise tactic was only moderately successful when it came to destruction of key military targets, and was responsible for the vast scale of the damage to cities both sides caused in their bombing campaigns. In the war in the Pacific, where space on aircraft carriers was at a premium and Lancaster Bombers would have been impractical, they kept with the tactic of using dive bombers, but such attacks were very risky and there was still no guarantee of a successful hit. By the end of the war, air power was rising to prominence as possibly the most crucial theatre of combat, but we were reaching the limits of what our hardware was capable of; our propellor-driven, straight wing fighter aircraft seemed incapable of breaking the sound barrier, and our bombing attacks couldn’t safely hit any target less than a mile wide. Something was clearly going to have to change; and next time, I’ll investigate what did.

The Offensive Warfare Problem

If life has shown itself to be particularly proficient at anything, it is fighting. There is hardly a creature alive today that does not employ physical violence in some form to get what it wants (or defend what it has) and, despite a vast array of moral arguments to the contrary of that being a good idea (I must do a post on the prisoner’s dilemma some time…), humankind is, of course, no exception. Unfortunately, our innate inventiveness and imagination as a race means that we have been able to let our brains take our fighting to the next level, with consequences that have got ever-more destructive as  time has gone  by. With the construction of the first atomic bombs, humankind had finally got to where it had threatened to for so long- the ability to literally wipe out planet earth.

This insane level of offensive firepower is not just restricted to large-scale big-guns (the kind that have been used fir political genital comparison since Napoleon revolutionised the use of artillery in warfare)- perhaps the most interesting and terrifying advancement in modern warfare and conflict has been the increased prevalence and distribution of powerful small arms, giving ‘the common man’ of the battlefield a level of destructive power that would be considered hideously overwrought in any other situation (or, indeed, the battlefield of 100 years ago). The epitomy of this effect is, of course, the Kalashnikov AK-47, whose cheapness and insane durability has rendered it invaluable to rebel groups or other hastily thrown together armies, giving them an ability to kill stuff that makes them very, very dangerous to the population of wherever they’re fighting.

And this distribution of such awesomely dangerous firepower has began to change warfare, and to explain how I need to go on a rather dramatic detour. The goal of warfare has always, basically, centred around the control of land and/or population, and as James Herbert makes so eminently clear in Dune, whoever has the power to destroy something controls it, at least in a military context. In his book Ender’s Shadow (I feel I should apologise for all these sci-fi references), Orson Scott Card makes the entirely separate point that defensive warfare in the context of space warfare makes no practical sense. For a ship & its weapons to work in space warfare, he rather convincingly argues, the level of destruction it must be able to deliver would have to be so large that, were it to ever get within striking distance of earth it would be able to wipe out literally billions- and, given the distance over which any space war must be conducted, mutually assured destruction simply wouldn’t work as a defensive strategy as it would take far too long for any counterstrike attempt to happen. Therefore, any attempt to base one’s warfare effort around defence, in a space warfare context, is simply too risky, since one ship (or even a couple of stray missiles) slipping through in any of the infinite possible approach directions to a planet would be able to cause uncountable levels of damage, leaving the enemy with a demonstrable ability to destroy one’s home planet and, thus, control over it and the tactical initiative. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a strategy of defensive warfare and any long-distance space war becomes a question of getting there first (plus a bit of luck).

This is all rather theoretical and, since we’re talking about a bunch of spaceships firing missiles at one another, not especially relevant when considering the realities of modern warfare- but it does illustrate a point, namely that as offensive capabilities increase the stakes rise of the prospect of defensive systems failing. This was spectacularly, and horrifyingly, demonstrated during 9/11, during which a handful of fanatics armed with AK’s were able to kill 5,000 people, destroy the world trade centre and irrevocably change the face of the world economy and world in general. And that came from only one mode of attack, and despite all the advances in airport security that have been made since then there is still ample opportunity for an attack of similar magnitude to happen- a terrorist organisation, we must remember, only needs to get lucky once. This means that ‘normal’ defensive methods, especially since they would have to be enforced into all of our everyday lives (given the format that terrorist attacks typically take), cannot be applied to this problem, and we must rely almost solely on intelligence efforts to try and defend ourselves.

This business of defence and offence being in imbalance in some form or another is not a phenomenon solely confined to the modern age. Once, wars were fought solely with clubs and shields, creating a somewhat balanced case of attack and defence;  attack with the club, defend with the shield. If you were good enough at defending, you could survive; simple as that. However, some bright spark then came up with the idea of the bow, and suddenly the world was in imbalance- even if an arrow couldn’t pierce an animal skin stretched over some sticks (which, most of the time, it could), it was fast enough to appear from nowhere before you had a chance to defend yourself. Thus, our defensive capabilities could not match our offensive ones. Fast forward a millennia or two, and we come to a similar situation; now we defended ourselves against arrows and such by hiding in castles behind giant stone walls  and other fortifications that were near-impossible to break down, until some smart alec realised the use of this weird black powder invented in China. The cannons that were subsequently invented could bring down castle walls in a matter of hours or less, and once again they could not be matched from the defensive standpoint- our only option now lay in hiding somewhere the artillery couldn’t get us, or running out of the way of these lumbering beasts. As artillery technology advanced throughout the ensuing centuries, this latter option became less and less feasible as the sheer numbers of high-explosive weaponry trained on opposition armies made them next-to impossible to fight in the field; but they were still difficult to aim accurately at well dug-in soldiers, and from these starting conditions we ended up with the First World War.

However, this is not a direct parallel of the situation we face now; today we deal with the simple and very real truth that a western power attempting to defend its borders (the situation is somewhat different when they are occupying somewhere like Afghanistan, but that can wait until another time) cannot rely on simple defensive methods alone- even if every citizen was an army trained veteran armed with a full complement of sub-machine guns (which they quite obviously aren’t), it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of a terrorist group to sneak a bomb in somewhere destructive. Right now, these methods may only be capable of killing or maiming hundreds or thousands at a time; tragic, but perhaps not capable of restructuring a society- but as our weapon systems get ever more advanced, and our more effective systems get ever cheaper and easier for fanatics to get hold of, the destructive power of lone murderers may increase dramatically, and with deadly consequences.

I’m not sure that counts as a coherent conclusion, or even if this counts as a coherent post, but it’s what y’got.

Fist Pumping

Anyone see the Wimbledon final yesterday? If not, you missed out- great game of tennis, really competitive for the first two sets, and Roger Federer showing just why he is the greatest player of all time towards the end. Tough for Andy Murray after a long, hard tournament, but he did himself proud and as they say: form is temporary, class is permanent. And Federer has some class.

However, the reason I bring this up is not to extol the virtues of a tennis match again (I think my post following Murray’s loss at the Australian Open was enough for that), but because of a feature that, whilst not tennis-specific, appears to be something like home turf for it- the fist pump.

It’s a universally-recognised (from my experience anyway) expression of victory- the clenched fist, raised a little with the bent elbow, used to celebrate each point won, each small victory. It’s an almost laughably recognisable pattern in a tennis match, for whilst the loser of a point will invariably let their hand go limp by their side, or alternatively vent his or her frustration, the winner will almost always change their grip on the racket, and raise one clenched fist in a quiet, individual expression of triumph- or go ape-shit mental in the case of set or match wins.

So then, where does this symbol come from? Why, across the world, is the raised, clenched fist used in arenas ranging from sport to propaganda to warfare as a symbol of victory, be they small or world-changing? What is it that lies behind the fist pump?

Let us first consider the act of a clenched fist itself. Try it now. Go on- clench your fist, hard, maintaining a strong grip. See the knuckles stand out, sense the muscles bulge, feel the forearm stiffen. Now, try to maintain that position. Keep up that strong grip for 30 seconds, a minute, maybe two. After a while, you should feel your grip begin to loosen, almost subconsciously. Try to keep it tight if you can, but soon your forearm will start to ache, grip fading and loosening. It’s OK, you can let go now, but you see the point- maintaining a strong grip is hard old work. Thus, showing a strong grip is symbolic of still having energy, strength to continue, a sign that you are not beaten yet and can still keep on going. This is further accompanied by having the fist in a raised, rather than slack, position, requiring that little bit more effort. Demonstrating this symbol to an opponent after any small victory is almost a way of rubbing their noses in it, a way of saying that whilst they have been humbled, the victor can still keep on going, and is not finished yet.

Then there is the symbolism of the fist as a weapon. Just about every weapon in human history, bar those in Wild Wild West and bad martial arts films, requires the hands to operate it, and our most basic ones (club, sword, mace, axe etc.) all require a strong grip around a handle to use effectively. The fist itself is also, of course, a weapon of sorts in its own right. Although martial artists have taken the concept a stage further, the very origins of human fighting and warfare comes from basic swinging at one another with fists- and it is always the closed fists, using knuckles as the driving weapon, that are symbolic of true hand-to-hand fighting, despite the fact that the most famous martial arts move, the ‘karate chop’ (or knife-hand strike to give it its true name) requires an open hand. Either way, the symbolism and connection between the fist and weaponry/fighting means that the raised fist is representative not only of defiance, of fighting back,  standing tall and being strong against all the other could throw against them (the form in which it was used in large amounts in old Soviet propaganda), but also of dominance, representing the victor’s power and control over their defeated foe, further adding to the whole ‘rubbing their noses in it’ symbolism.

And then there is the position of the fist. Whilst the fist can be and is held in a variety of positions ranging from the full overhead to the low down clench on an extended arm, it is invariably raised slightly when clenched in victory. The movement may only be of a few centimetres, but its significance should not be underestimated- at the very least it brings the arm into a bent position. A bent arm position is the starting point for all punches and strikes, as it is very hard to get any sort of power from a bent arm, so the bending of the arm on the fist clench is once again a connection to the idea of the fist as a weapon. This is reinforced by the upwards motion being towards the face and upper body, as this is the principle target, and certainly the principle direction of movement (groin strikes excepted) in traditional fist fighting. Finally, we have the full lift, fists clenched and raised above the head in the moment of triumph. Here the symbolism is purely positional- the fists raised, especially when compared to the bent neck and hunched shoulders of the defeated compatriot, makes the victor seem bigger and more imposing, looming over his opponent and becoming overbearing and ‘above’ them.

The actual ‘pumping’ action of the fist pump, rarer than the unaccompanied clench,  adds its own effect, although in this case it is less symbolism and more naked emotion on show- not only passion for the moment, but also raw aggression to let one’s opponent know that not only are you up for this, but you are well ready and prepared to front up and challenge them on every level. But this symbolism could be considered to be perhaps for the uncivilised and overemotional, whereas the subtlest, calmest men may content themselves with the tiniest grin and a quick clench, conjuring up centuries of basic symbolism in one tiny, almost insignificant, act of victory.